What actions are recommended when experiencing stress-related weight loss?

Doctor's Answers (2)

Dr Beng Yeong Ng
5.0

"Psychiatrist with over 20 years of experience"

One’s body will react differently to stress, depending on the level of stress and his ability to cope. When a person is under stress, some of his behaviours, especially those pertaining to diet and exercise, may have an impact on his weight. He may:

  • overeat, or 'stress eat'
  • forget to eat or skip meals
  • crave junk food
  • comfort food, or sugary snacks
  • over-exercise or lose motivation to exercise

Often, weight gain is a common and problematic result of prolonged anxiety. While most people are more concerned about gaining weight, weight loss is just as much of a problem.

There are several ways that stress and anxiety can cause weight loss.

 

First, the fight or flight behaviour.

Any kind of severe stress triggers a response called "fight or flight." In this stress response, the body prepares to fight off (or flee from) a real or perceived threat. The muscles tense up, the heart races and the number of breaths taken in a minute increases. The body’s metabolism increases.

Under normal circumstances, one’s body will return to normal once the threat has passed. For people with severe anxiety, their body continues to prepare for fight or flight even when they are no longer in danger. As a result of the increase to the body’s metabolism, the body’s fat stores are mobilised to produce energy for the body, culminating in weight loss.

 

The second mechanism is the lack of sleep.

Anxiety sufferers often find themselves having poor sleep. With sleep deprivation, the body does not produce the right levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol also affects your body's metabolism.

 

The third mechanism to consider pertains to the gut.

The stomach and intestines are directly affected by the stress response. Digestive issues due to stress are normal. When anxiety is prolonged, this response can result in long-term problems like frequent vomiting and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a common disorder that affects the large intestine. Signs and symptoms include cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and diarrhea or constipation, or both. IBS is a chronic condition that a person will need to manage long term. If a person suffers from frequent stomach and intestinal pain, he may avoid eating, since food can aggravate these symptoms.

 

The fourth mechanism is the tendency to forget to eat when under stress.

Often, anxiety sufferers will find themselves preoccupied with worrying thoughts. They tend to ignore their basic self-care like eating, having adequate rest and sleep.

A useful pointer is to seek medical attention if a person has lost five per cent or more of your overall body weight in any 6- to 12-month period. Other indications to seek medical advice include:

  • a person loses weight without trying;
  • chronic headaches;
  • chest pain;
  • feel persistently “on edge”;
  • using alcohol or drugs as a way to cope;
  • poor sleep.

Many people do lose a few kilos after the stress of preparing for a major exam, changing jobs, bereavement. Weight often returns to normal when the person starts to feel calmer or happier, after he has time to adapt to the new life situation or challenges. Counselling and support may be needed to help a person get to this stage. Significant weight loss can also be the result of an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa. It is important to seek help from a mental health professional if you have any concerns about your resilience and mental health.

One should not lose more than 10% of their body weight unintentionally over a short span of a few months. If so, it would be advisable for you to check with your doctor to screen for other organic diseases that might cause the loss of weight. 

Stress by itself usually does not cause a loss of appetite resulting in weight loss. Try to manage the stress by keeping your maintaining a healthy lifestyle i.e. daily exercise for 30min, good sleep and hygiene, a well balanced and healthy diet, and avoiding smoking and alcohol. Relaxation methods such as meditation, spending time with friends and enjoying your hobbies are good ways to take your mind off the stress. If you have feelings of depression or constant worrying that affect your daily function, you should see your doctor.

Hope this is helpful.

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